Clothing, Food and Civilization
At the beginning of this article, I would like to emphasize that I am not an expert in the field of fashion and the textile industry. My writings are mostly about agriculture and food, the environment, and occasionally religion. One thing that I initially thought food and clothing had in common was that they were both based on crops, so I could tell you a bit about how far human civilization has pushed the world’s agriculture to produce these two things. However, as I delved deeper into how the world currently produces clothing, the distinction between global food and global clothing became more and more blurred. That amidst the glitz and glamor of the fashion or food industry, there is a dark side involving various forms of dredging, destruction and uprooting of the environment and communities from their roots. If food watchers see the documentary Food, Inc. as an icon of criticism against the modern food industry, I suggest you watch The True Cost, which is an icon of criticism against the modern clothing industry.
In the next few paragraphs, I will try to reflect on my reading about the global clothing industry, while occasionally visiting some of my findings on the global food industry. As in my other writings on food (e.g. links to Food in the Stranglehold of Capitalism and Food as Embodied Politics), I hope the end of this post will be a bit enlightening.
I start this story from ancient times. Both clothing and food play a major role in the development of civilization. While prehistoric humans hunted and gathered for food, they also developed clothing to keep their bodies warm. Animal skins and plant fibers were simply spun into protective fabrics. As food production was sustained by the beginnings of agriculture, so was clothing. Fibers from plants such as cotton, kapok, flax and linen began to be processed into simple pieces of clothing. Clothing was also produced from animal-derived raw materials such as wool and silk.
On the other hand, more complex and intricate farming produced more expensive and refined clothing. The clothes of gods and kings, for example, were spun from fine natural silk, the production of which required a high degree of skill and diligence. Not many artisans could produce silk-grade cloth. At this point, concentrated production in developed civilizations such as China (silk), India (cotton) and Europe (linen) and growing demand from around the world became the foundation on which the clothing industry was built on a global scale. The silk road, they say, is the real footprint of clothing in human civilization. It goes hand in hand with the trade of luxury food commodities such as spices, coffee, tea, cocoa and sugar from artisans in Asia, Africa and Latin America to kings in Europe and the Middle East. Clothing, like food, has a complementary function, not only fulfilling basic human needs, but also becoming a symbol of class identity.
This phase in the story of human civilization is certainly less dark than when the industrial revolution began in the 18th century. Colonialism, built on the extraction of agricultural resources, was exacerbated by efforts to transform these resources en masse and quickly. Whereas yarn spinners and cloth knitters were once known as highly skilled artisans, industrial machines were able to replace the production of cloth more quickly, more uniformly and more efficiently. The role of humans was reduced to mere labor. This was true for both food and clothing. Colonialism and the industrial revolution (later followed by the green revolution) left farmers and workers stripped of their unique identities. Smallholders, cheap laborers, they are the collateral of production efficiency. They became dispensable.
The Global Clothing Industry and Fast-Fashion
And so we come to the face of the clothing industry in the modern world. Before our eyes, names like GAP, CJ Penney, Marks & Spencer are commonly seen as big brands that sell clothes at premium prices. What makes them able to dominate the global fashion industry? Is it their powerful technology? Or is it large production assets with efficient machinery? Before answering this, we need to look at two forms of global value chains in our modern industry. Gary Gereffi [i], a sociologist from the United States, explains that there are producer-driven industries, and buyer-driven industries. Producer-driven industries rely on the reliability of technology and production assets that ultimately build markets. On the other hand, industries such as clothing do not require high technological innovation. The well-known companies I mentioned above don’t even have production assets. They prioritize marketing, retail channels, fashion design ideas and brand value to ensure the greatest possible value chain capture in their global industry chain. Just as the global food industry is characterized by fast food, the global clothing industry is characterized by fast fashion – an industry that emphasizes fast fashion changes and, consequently, fast production flow.
It is only natural that behind the frenetic fast fashion industry, while the fashion world and retailers take the lion’s share of the value, farmers, factory workers and textile entrepreneurs scramble to add value to the scraps – activities that often come at the expense of the environment and local communities. In many writings [ii], the textile industry has been described as the second largest contributor to environmental pollution in the world after the petroleum industry. This is the so-called race to the bottom in the business world. This begins how we uncover the dark side of the global apparel industry [iii], as we try to trace it chain by chain.
Debt bondage in the cotton farming sector
The dark story of the apparel industry starts upstream, in the farmlands of the world’s textile raw material production centers. I would like to highlight one agricultural commodity that is the main raw material for the world’s fabrics: cotton, which is made from a plant called cotton (Gossypium spp.). China is the largest producer of cotton, followed by India and the United States. While China benefits from rapid economic growth and mass agricultural production, India is a different story. Cotton farming in India has a long history dating back 5000 years in the Indus river valley, and from there the cotton industry developed in the world. All was well until colonialism when the British Empire imposed strict trade policies on cotton in India. Since then, while the cotton industry in India has flourished, the welfare of farmers has declined. The book A Frayed History: the journey of cotton in India by Meena Menon and Uzramma is a vivid account of this bitter journey.
To illustrate this further, try googling ‘farmer’s suicide’, and the first news story to come out will be about cotton farmers in India. Since 1995, there have been more than 200,000 farmer suicides. According to an article on CNN [iv], 2-3 farmers in India commit suicide every day! The entanglement of farmers with debt is the main cause. The monsoon climate has a huge impact on cotton production, along with cotton’s vulnerability to pests that require massive pesticide applications. When the weather is unfavorable, cotton production can be devastated. On the other hand, when production improves, cotton prices often fall below the floor price for farmers. The introduction of GM cotton, which was expected to provide a solution, has only made matters worse as farmers are increasingly bound by the price of GM cotton seeds and the resistance of caterpillars, as reported by The Guardian [v].
Reflecting this phenomenon on global food production, the story of Indian farmers and cotton is a classic tale of farmers dependent on global commodities. In Indonesia, this story is commonly heard for commodities such as coffee, cocoa, rubber, nutmeg or cloves, whose prices follow international prices, farmers are dependent on markets that are beyond their reach, and that they cannot consume themselves. The end result is a situation where farmers become price-takers and are highly vulnerable to factors beyond their control. The same can be seen with workers in textile factories.
The race to the bottom in the textile and convection industry
We now move to the middle of the clothing industry chain. The textile industry receives cotton, wool, linen or silk cocoons from farmers, spins them into yarn, weaves and dyes them into ready-made fabrics. The convection industry then patterns, cuts, sews and sews these fabrics into ready-made garments. Throughout this process, the industry keeps production costs to a minimum on the basis of efficiency. Raw materials are sourced from the most efficient production centers (or those willing to offer the cheapest prices), and therefore cause many farmers to become victims. Semi-mechanization of production requires unskilled labour (factory workers) who can be paid as cheaply as possible. Gereffi’s study on the global clothing industry shows that textile and convection manufacturing will tend to gravitate towards countries that can offer the cheapest labor prices. As a result, the clothing industry in Japan, China and Korea is outsourcing its production to India, Bangladesh and southeast Asian countries (including Indonesia), from Europe to Africa, and from the United States and Canada to Latin America. When labor laws in these countries are tightened, companies will react by moving their factories to other countries.
Much has been written about how the race to the bottom for labor in the textile and convection industry has taken its toll. A major garment factory fire in the United States about a century ago became a dark historical record that killed more than 100 workers. A century later, a similar incident occurred at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh where the collapse of a factory building killed more than 1000 workers (10 times that in the US). The pattern was similar. Employers do not pay attention to building conditions and worker safety in the pursuit of profit. The incident at Rana Plaza in 2013 opened the eyes of many people about the working conditions and welfare of factory workers in many developing countries where the textile and convection industry survives. Not to mention when we count all the impacts of waste chemicals used as bleaches, dyes, and enzymes for textiles or screen printing dyes that are discharged into rivers in many places, including around Bandung.
Consumer responsibility at the end of the chain
Both fiber farming and the garment industry may be to blame for the environmental damage and exploitation of workers in developing countries around the world. However, we as consumers have just as much at stake. The race to the bottom in the clothing industry stems from our fast-paced, cheap lifestyle. There is a high price behind the cheap clothes we buy in the market. However, expensive clothes also do not guarantee that the products we buy are more sustainable. Retailers and the fashion industry extract so much value from trends and fashions without regard for the businesses upstream. So, the high prices we pay may never go back to the farmers and factory workers. To make matters worse, fast-paced fashion implies a faster turnover of goods. The end of the chain is the landfill filled with rolls and rolls of used clothes that could still be worth wearing. All because this year’s fashion trends are different from what they were last year.
Being a responsible clothing consumer in Indonesia, in this day and age, is more difficult than being a responsible food consumer. When it comes to food, we can always start from our own backyard, or buy products from local farmers. But what about clothes? Does buying clothes from the shop next door mean that we are helping to break the chain of the global clothing industry? Or do we need to spin our own yarn and weave our own fabric to be more sustainable? Of course, it’s not that easy either.
Being a responsible clothing consumer requires some small sacrifices. It starts with realizing that we don’t need that many clothes. Also, unlike food which is perishable, we can choose clothes that will last longer for us. Choosing clothes that are slightly more expensive because of their durability is obviously better than choosing clothes that are cheap but spoil very quickly – not only because we generate less waste, but also because we might pay more to upstream actors. It is also clearly better than choosing expensive clothes because of the fashion, tailor or brand. If we are willing and able, there are many eco-fashion clothes on the market. But even if they are not affordable, we can be more responsible with what we have – reduce our consumption, and slow down the wear and tear of our clothes.
 Petroleum came later, producing synthetic fiber products such as polyester, nylon, and spandex.
[Gereffi, G. (1999). International trade and industrial upgrading in the apparel commodity chain. Journal of international economics, 48(1), 37-70.
[ii] One article on the textile industry’s contribution to environmental pollution can be found at https://www.alternet.org/environment/its-second-dirtiest-thing-world-and-youre-wearing-it
[iii] Gereffi, G., & Memedovic, O. (2003). The global apparel value chain: What prospects for upgrading by developing countries (pp. 5-6). Vienna: United Nations Industrial Development Organization.